I know about Ballroom and Pose Gets it Right

*Spoilers for Pose season 2*

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When a student told me FX was making a soapy drama about 1980s Ballroom culture, I was not here for it. Then I heard Ryan Murphy was overseeing the project. The last White gay person who crafted a commercial Ballroom narrative—Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston—got dragged for a directorial vision that reduced Ballroom from a complex community ritual to a dazzling neoliberal spectacle for White masses. There’s certainly no consensus about whether Livingston done right or wrong, my point is that making an accurate, holistic representation of Ballroom that is also uplifting and respectful is hard, especially when outsiders are involved.

Good news: Pose fucking nails it. I don’t mean everything is totally accurate. I question the time frame for some of the voguing  (vogue is broken up by Old and New Way, and some moves are pretty New Way). I’m also leery of how often “realness” reflects a contemporary usage popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race rather than the more traditional ballroom meaning of heteronormative passability. But every time I watch Pose, I thank the writers, directors, producers, and actors for delivering nuanced narratives and storylines that avoid hackneyed tropes without looking away from hard realities. I also love how Ballroom is represented with skill, aplomb, and respectful historical accuracy. Here’s how Pose does Ballroom representation well.

1. Paris easter eggs. Released in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning was the only real ballroom text for decades. And the people in that film—especially their statements, lewks, jokes, and ball work—have become pop culture touchstones. Even if you don’t know the documentary, I promise you’ve heard some of the lines, especially if you’ve ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. Pose season 2 has some v satisfying call backs to Paris. For example, the ep. 8 scene of Angel and Blanca dancing down the beach looks very much like Carmen and Brooke Xtravagena doing the same:

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Angel’s ep. 2 entry into the modeling world visually and narratively parallels Octavia St. Laurent’s experience at the Eileen Ford model agency cattle-call search. Damon booking a European tour with Malcolm McLaren echoes Willie Ninja’s mention of dancing for Malcolm McLaren. Even the two young homeless teens palling around outside a Ball in ep. 10 evoke the unnamed young teens Livingston interviewed.

 

 

2. IN ADDITION to these Paris touchstones, Pose extends its connection by referencing non-filmed aspects of the people in the documentary. This is most poignant in ep. 3 where Electra and Co. “cocoon” a White businessman who accidentally died at Electra’s BDSM establishment. The drastic steps they take to wrap and pack his body in a trunk (which Electra will keep for the rest of her life) is framed as safer than trusting the police or the criminal justice system. Just in case some watchers are not up on their Paris lore, Pose explicitly telegraphs the connection by ending with a quote from Dorian Corey, one of the most iconic figures in Paris Is Burning, and known for offering a complex and empathetic narrative voice that levels out Livingston’s depiction of Ballroom life as triumph and flash. If you research anything about Paris, you will immediately find articles about Corey’s death or, more specifically, what was found in Corey’s closet (you know what’s coming): a partially mummified body in the fetal position wrapped in naugahyde (just like on Pose). The estimate is that this body had been with Corey at least 20 years. While details are hazy, two common beliefs are that Corey shot a home invader or an abusive lover in self-defense. Corey clearly made the decision that it was safer to live with this body forever than go to the police and trust the criminal justice system. The Pose episode ends with Electra ruminating about the emotional and physical responsibility she now carries, but never does the show question the ethics of her final decision. Like Corey, we are asked to remember the unbearably unjust price a person such as Electra would pay for doing what society would consider “the right thing.”

3. Pose also fills in important details that Paris has been critiqued for dropping. The only real reference to Ballroom history in Paris is Corey’s mention of how Balls grew from 1950s and 1960s drag queen pageants. But in Pose ep. 1, when the girls discuss the history of Balls, Electra says “Crystal LaBeija lost one too many titles to White girls.” The founder and first mother of the House of LaBeija, Crystal, developed the House and Ball scene as an alternative to the White-dominated drag queen pageants she participated in and hated. There’s a old documentary called The Queen (1968), which is a rather dull depiction of drag queen contestants in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest. The jewel of this film comes during the last few minutes: Crystal, who placed fourth, lets us know that she has FUCKING HAD IT with the racist beauty standards and winner selection process.

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So what does Crystal do about it? Oh just heads the formation of Ballroom as an alt performance scene for queer Black and Brown people. In the next episode of Pose, when Electra tries to recruit Tess for her House of Wintour, Tess responds “ain’t no White girls in Ballroom.” While there were White people in Ballroom (Corey was one), this statement reinforces the previous allusion to Crystal. In short, Pose communicates how Ballroom is designed as a space for people who are not only marginalized by dominant culture, but by White queer culture as well.

Its also worth noting that in ep. 2 Pray Tell makes sure the children “know your history” by explaining how Paris DuPree invented voguing. You might not realize that Paris is Burning is named after Paris DuPree, and specifically a Ball Paris hosted called Paris is Burning. You might not know this because Livingston fails to name or identify Paris in the film, or make the explicit connection between the name of the film and Paris’s Ball.  Don’t be shocked but Livingston’s omissions didn’t sit well with Paris. Its poignant, then, that Pose not only names Paris, but makes Paris visible within the history and lore of Ballroom.

4. Pose deals with real Ballroom people and shit. The ep. 10 storyline touches on how the Ball management structure (Electra, Lulu, and Angel reference the MCs–also called Commentators–and the judging panel) is dominated by men, and how there is a circumscribed amount of “femme queen” categories.

a) Let me first draw your attention to the aforementioned judging panel. Plz note the judge in the center—the one that hands out all the trophies.

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That’s just José FUCKING Xtravaganza, a legendary ballroom performer. You might know José from his feature in Icona Pop’s “Up All Night” music video, which recreates a Ball event. Or maybe if you’re deep in like me, you can spot his 3-second cameo in Paris is Burning—he’s one of the teen voguers. Or maybe you know his story because its Damon and Ricky’s dream: José became a backup dancer for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour.

b) Let me now draw your attention to the issues discussed, because they’re real fucking Ballroom issues. In his excellent ethnography Butch Queens Up in Pumps (2013), Marlon Bailey discusses how Houses might be governed by mothers but fathers often occupy more authoritative positions within the national ballroom structure. Moreover, virtually all MCs/Commentators are men, and, due to the lack of “women, butch, and femme queen” Ball categories, women, butches, and transgender people (WBT) had to create a separate micro Ball scene in the mid 2000s (224).

c) Let me finally draw your attention to how Pray Tell and the other masculine commentators address this gender issue: they all do drag. Maybe this seems like a quick fix, but the plot trajectory actually allows Pose to show one more more layer of Ballroom; while Ballroom scenes this season focus on realness, voguing, and house competitions, there’s a popular category called Butch Queens Up in Drags (Paris DuPree was actually a competitor in this category, as was another legendary House Mother, Pepper LaBeija).

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Behold Paris

The Pose Commentators say they want to perform as “butch queen up in drags first time at a Ball.” I don’t know if this subcategory always happens, but its a documented Ball category shown in Paris is Burning. Including this category in the Pose storyline helps us to see how truly multifarious Ballroom is.

Conclusion: fucking watch Pose. Its delightful.

Also learn more about Ballroom:
Marlon Bailey, Butch Queens Up in Pumps
Marlon Bailey, “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture”
let me be real you should read anything by Marlon Bailey, he’s my ultimate professor crush
Jonathan David Jackson, “The Social World of Voguing”
bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning”
Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning”
My House (2018, Viceland)
Kiki (2016)
Paris is Burning (1990)
The Queen (1968)

 

 

Posted in culture, film, gender-bending, intersectionality, popular culture, queer, race, society | Tagged

RuPaul Realness: critically analyze the things you love

I love drag. I wrote a book about it. And I love to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s fun and queer and dazzling and fun. And queer.

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My all time fav Bianca Del Rio front and center

But not all queer and fun things are perfect, and Drag Race—like RuPaul herself—is no exception. There’s been the issue with RuPaul not fully welcoming trans performers or drag kings on the show. There’s been the issue with how more popular queens (the ones that do the best) are predominately White. There’s been the issue with how Drag Race tends to takes ritualistic and creative elements from underground and minority drag culture without credit, often transforming them into products that are both spectacle-like and devoid of their full cultural meaning (thanks bell hooks for the ritual vs spectacle framing!)

So I watched and coded seven seasons of Drag Race and then I wrote an article about how Drag Race uses “realness,” a term taken from ballroom culture. Ballroom is a performance scene designed and maintained mainly by poor queer people of Color. Check Paris is Burning for dets, or better yet the amazing Butch Queens up in Pumps by Marlon Bailey, or the already legendary FX series Pose). In the ballroom scene, realness names a very specific form of performance (appearing cisgender and heterosexual within the schema of class and race denoted by the category). It’s a term that speaks to the lived experiences of ballroom members within our heteronormative, capitalistic, White-centered world, and it’s also a term that identifies a form of agency ballroom members deploy to blend and thus protect themselves in hostile public areas.

On Drag Race, realness is none of those things. Its a piece of candy, a term that’s fun to say and identifies the fabulousness or success or outlandishness or cleverness of a particular lewk. Queens speak of doing “baby bear realness” (s7, ep6) when their outfit successfully makes them look like they were mauled to death, or “skunk Cinderella realness” (s6, ep7) to note the fierceness of their stripy-hair-and-ballroom-dress ensemble. Oh I got others:

  • Alien robotic venereal disease realness (s9, ep9)
  • Dead dog realness (s6, ep7)
  • X-men weird angel devil realness (s9, ep4)
  • Punk unicorn realness (s8, ep3)
  • eskimo style yeti ski fish realness (s10, ep4)
  • That’s my mama realness (s8, ep8)
  • Carnival pregnancy realness (s4, ep10)
  • real lion taming realness (s5, ep2)
  • Helen Keller drowning realness (no idea) (s5, ep1)

Realness is a bit of fun on Drag Race. But also Drag Race is a mass commercial product and rating powerhouse. And when the show uses realness with the frequency it does (in about 62% the episodes in a given season), its appropriating something from a minority subculture without credit, then commodifying it into a sellable product sans the meaning that’s so significant to the community that created the term.

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I love Drag Race, maybe you do too. But if we continue to love it, we’ll have to do so with our eyes wide open. Check my article, “RuPaul Realness: The Neoliberal Resignifcation of Ballroom Discourse” here in Social Semiotics if you or your university has access to Taylor & Francis journal publications, or contact me personally if you don’t.

And remember, if you can’t love [analyzing things that are entertaining to] yourself, how in the hell you gonna [be critical of when people] love anything else.

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Posted in academia, culture, gender-bending, popular culture, queer, reality TV, society, television

Why Wouldn’t There Be More Than Two Genders?

“Student Ejected for Telling Prof There are only 2 Genders,” says Fox News segment.

Behold a college senior telling Tucker Carlson about being forced to apologize and receive critique from classmates after he insisted there are only two genders. The student seems most upset about the treatment he says he received in class and Carlson appears most upset by the idea that any person would believe there are more than two genders. I wasn’t in the class so I can’t comment on what was taught or what transpired. That’s actually not the most concerning part to me (although appropriate classroom behavior from both students and professors is critical). What bothers me is that neither the student nor Carlson seems to know the basic concepts of gender.

Today Saucies, I’ll elucidate these basic concepts. It’s no problem really, I teach this in the first two weeks of my introductory course. But I also want to talk about my larger concern: not that Carlson and the student expressed a difference from my own evidence-backed position, but rather that they expressed distain for learning about these concepts in the first place. This is different from having distain for the concept itself. It’s having distain for knowledge.

1) Carlson and the student believe there are only two genders and their evidence is biologists, biology, science, and biology! Male and female, as Carlson says. Welp, that’s not gender. That’s sex, which is the term we use to explain how science and biology categorize certain bodily differences. So first let’s talk sex: there are more than two. How do I know? Because biology and science notes the existence of intersex bodies. Intersex bodies do not fully adhere to the genital, gonadal, hormonal, and chromosomal criteria medicine uses to assign either male or female sex to bodies, and estimates range as high as 1 in every 250-500 people are born intersex. So yes, there is clear biological evidence that there are more than just male and female bodies. We have two sex categories and also many people whose biology does not snugly fit either category. Up until very recently, we also had a habit of surgically or hormonally altering those bodies to fit our two-sex criteria and also asking parents to keep their children’s intersex status secret. But intersex people exist (have always existed). Perhaps you might take the position that we should continue medically altering these bodies to fit into our sex categories. But that argument doesn’t negate the biological existence of intersex bodies.

2) Let’s talk about gender. It’s a culturally constructed way we understand and organize difference. This is not my opinion, it’s a fact based on scores of peer-reviewed and evidence-based work from scientists that study human organization. Gender is a product of society, even if we feel the purpose of gender is to organize biological phenomena. We gender intersex bodies when we assign them a male or female sex because we’re fitting them into a cultural standard that’s not biologically determined for them. We also gender male and female bodies when we put one in pink and the other in blue, or say one is a better listener and the other better at sports. These are strange and arbitrary cultural divisions that appear to be attached to a biological imperative but are not. How do I know? Well, we used to put boys in pink before World War I because the color was bold and manly and blue was delicate and dainty. In some cultures it’s masculine to have long hair and in others short hair. In some cultures women wear skirts and in other cultures men wear similar garments called kilts. In contemporary western society, we have two genders (man and woman) that are supposed to reflect the two biological sexes (male and female). But the specific standards that define those gender categories changes as culture changes. Perhaps you might take the position that there is the best way or most normal way to order gender around bodies. But that argument doesn’t negate the fact that gender is produced by society, and that other societies do gender differently.

3) Let’s talk about non-western gender. Carlson lists several other genders beyond the two he knows, and he includes Two Spirit and Hijra. These are non-western gender identities. That is to say, they were produced in a society that is different than the one that Carlson lives in. If gender is constructed and if gender rules vary by culture, then why would we assume that all societies everywhere constructed a two gender system just the way we did? Wouldn’t it be equally plausible that other cultures might construct gender in different ways and with different meanings that lead to more than two? Actually, many did and we have scores of evidence-based anthropology, sociology, and history scholarship that proves the existence of these other genders. Perhaps you might take the position that these were deviant identities or that they are not as good as the western gender system. But that argument doesn’t negate the existence of these other genders; their existence is a reality.
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4) Let’s go back to western gender. Carlson says a bit mockingly that some people believe there are “infinite genders.” And why can’t there be? If gender is constructed by culture and other cultures have constructed gender beyond two, why can’t we also do that? The notion that there are two distinct genders that should correspond to the two assigned sexes might always be the dominant model in the west. But why couldn’t we produce something else too? We could, we would just have to bend the dominant cultural rules. And agender, genderfluid, and trans people are doing that. Perhaps you might take the position that we should not do this. But that argument doesn’t negate the fact that we could and are.

The “perhaps” arguments I constructed here are contrary to my own beliefs and I think they’re pretty ethnocentric and cruel too. But these are certainly salient positions one might take if they knew the basics of the topic they were discussing. That is to say, these would be educated arguments.

The worst part of the Fox segment is when Carlson asks the student to explain a term introduced in his class—mansplaining—and the student hedges, finally saying “I’m not sure… I think it’s anytime a man speaks really.” I would understand the student being angry if that was what the term means but it doesn’t. He doesn’t know the defintion because he didn’t learn the definition. Carlson asks if terms like mansplaining are measurable according to a “species of social sciences” and the student responds no. But they are. The student is angry, yes, but at what exactly? Does he know the definitions, information, or evidence around the concepts he is against? I assume that since he was introduced to these concepts as part of a college course, he did have the opportunity to learn them.

Once, a student wrote a very negative evaluation of my course, calling it bullshit and postmodern trash. The student then backed this claim by outlining several theories and readings we had covered and arguing why the ideas could have been useful and transformative but are ultimately not. It was, frankly, one of the most affirming evaluations I ever received. I don’t agree with the student but the student produced a coherent argument by weighing the value of materials they had a full and accurate understanding of. My goal is not to indoctrinate students or push a personal agenda. It’s to teach basic concepts that exist in the world so that students can make their own educated decisions. Do I hope those decisions are ethical and empathetic? Yes. But the bottom line is to build a foundation for them to do that work themselves.

The denouement of the Fox segment is Carlson encouraging the student to drop out of college. Not to learn the concepts more fully so as to better refute them. Not to practice honing counter rhetoric based on knowledge and evidence. The topic of the clip is terrible but there is nothing so terrible as Carlson’s advice to quit learning, to remain ignorant of the basic components of issues.

Stay in school kids. Learn how to tell your professors they teach postmodern trash with irrefutable and informed style.
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Posted in #MediaGettingItWrong, academia, classroom, culture, gender, politics, society

Is today a great day or THE GREATEST DAY? VOTE HELLER FOR CAT CONTEST!

Everything is a perpetual dumpster fire, we all get that. But today I found out I was selected for entry to a CAT CONTEST YES I KNOW.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2SFS9BM
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I entered  annual “Academics With Their Cats” contest . YES I’M THAT PERSON. Please vote for me because I’m untenured so this is literally the most important milestone in my academic career.

Orange Cat and I are on the last voting page, I look stunning in my white kitty collar and Max looks stunned she has to pose for anything not food.

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VOTE FOR MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEOOW!!! 

Posted in academia, cats, social media

Feminist Media Studies Checklist: the Young Adult Novel Edition

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Gird yourselves for (yet another) rant about my best frenemy, the Young Adult adventure novel. As you may remember from my least popular blog posts, I read YA literature for fun. The kind where a young female protagonist lives in a fantasy or dystopic world and goes on some sort of physically taxing adventure. You know, your standard Hunger Games or Divergent fare. I like these books mainly because I like the heroine: she’s strong and clever and brave and talented. She’s a survivor and generally the adventure she goes on helps her friends or family, often also her town or kingdom.

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yes I’m back with this shit again

YA books with this type of heroine seem pretty feminist-leaning, but they’re not always. A good amount of the time, the feministy heroine is plunked into a storyline that subtly normalizes racist and sexist cultural standards, and gives a pass to patriarchal gender relations. Only she doesn’t know it, and I suspect neither do the authors. (I hope) most people don’t create media with the intent of replicating the shittier parts of our cultural system. But what ends up happening is that the awesome heroine–a figure that is highly identifiable and consumable to many young adult women–accepts, responds to, and does pretty well in this kinda messed up world.

We in the feminist media studies biz spend a great deal of time illuminating how media producers create seemingly great media that roundabout perpetuates racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideologies. Laura Mulvey described how women’s bodies are positioned in films (for instance, every Hitchcock film) as sex objects to be desired and consumed by both the male protagonist and the audience that gazes at her through the point-of-view of the male protagonist. bell hooks analyzed how Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston took an important cultural ritual in the lives of poor queer people of Color and presented it as an entertaining spectacle that White audiences laughed at. In both cases, well-intentioned content creators ultimately created a sexist and racist product because they were not careful with how they crafted their media world.

Alison Bechdel developed a simple rubric for gauging if a film creates a relevant context for women. Does the film have 1) two or more women; 2) that talk to each other; 3) about things other than a man.
h96uRThis test does not evaluate if the film is good, progressive, or feminist. It simply highlights the world of the film in regards to women characters and their holistic value to the plot.

I’ve started my own checklist for the YA novel with a female protagonist. It doesn’t identify if the book is good or even if its feminist. It only evaluates if the world under the heroine’s coat of shiny female empowerment perpetuates sexism, racism, or oppressive heterosexual gender roles.

Ok, the heroine is cool as fuck but…

1) Are there other women around too, or is the heroine mainly surrounded by male figures that are unique and complex like her? If there are other women, are they mainly a) evil queens; b) calculating mothers; c) vapid social climbers; or d) false friends/betrayers? Follow up: did the protagonist have a really great female friend who died or left, conveniently leaving her in need of a new essential partnership?

2) Speaking of the male love interest… Does he sometimes override the heroine’s own self-determination for reasons he feels are valid but she has told him are not? Is he at one point extremely physically or verbally cruel but frames it as something he must do to keep her away from worse danger? When she is in a situation of power over him, does he find ways to carve out power by withholding affection or abandoning her? Does she assume these actions are not because he is a dick but because she is not desirable or has made some type of capital relationship mistake?

3) Does the heroine gets some kind of makeover (in discord with her overall character) and her body is then marked by the male love interest, male friends, or others though stares or comments about her beauty? Does this serve to imply she is more beautiful in feminine trappings than in the clothing/hairstyles she wears for hero tasks?

4) Is there a part where the heroine’s emotional weakness rather than her physical strength and talent becomes the focus? Is that emotional weakness framed as a marker of her realizing “real feelings” for the male love interest? Does he momentarily engage and then withdraw affection in ways that encourage this emotional disorder?

5) Is the heroine’s age clearly articulated as 16 or 17 [under the legal age of consent for the majority of the book’s readership] but the male love interest is ambiguously older or described as a mature adult male? Does this adult male love interest sometimes get really mad and punch the wall close to the teenage heroine’s head or body?

6) Are the sex scenes riddled with creepy phrases such as “he took her mouth” or he “desired to bed her” or whatever other things might seem old timey sexy but enforce his sexual dominance? Is the sexual content triggered by him lecturing/yelling at her for “bad” behavior, or soothing her about some body or emotional insecurity that she could have worked through on her own timeline but that he pushes her to disclose or deal with at his lead?

7) Is rape, sexual assault, or disempowering forms of sex work/prostitution brought up as a threat to the heroine’s physicality or honor but never addressed in terms of how sexual domination is a persistent means of dehumanizing and controlling all women? In other words, is sexual assault a scary shadow used to show the heroine’s ultimate bravery and strength, or is it something the heroine understands is a cultural method of gender oppression that must be dealt with on a larger scale?

8) The heroine probably takes on a masculine or men’s job, skill, or social position. Is she able to do so because everyone feels these gender rules are arbitrary and many women are of a like mind, or is it because she is unique and awesome among women and can do something other women don’t want to or just won’t?

9) And just so we’re not dirtbags ourselves, let’s note if the heroine is described with White features like red hair and pale skin. Oh she is, I’m so surprised. Ok, are all the other main characters described with similar features/skin/hair for no clear geographical reason? Is the only description of someone not White a minor character or group, and are they described as having “golden brown” skin?

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Posted in #MediaGettingItWrong, books, culture, film, gender, popular culture, postfeminist, sexiness, sexism, young adult | 1 Comment

Professor Werk, or, what do professors do like teach?

I’m heading back into the school year and I’m exhausted by all the work I’ve done this summer while not teaching. That’s not a joke, I worked all summer even though I didn’t teach any classes. People can be surprised at this because they see my job as all about teaching. I get that. Most people interact with professors on the front side; as students we see professors do werk by lecturing and leading classes and grading papers. I do that too. I like doing that. That’s a pretty affirming statement from a super introvert like me. In spite of my discomfort with freestyle lecturing, running open discussions, being stared at by forty students for seventy-five minutes, I feel like what I do in the classroom makes a difference. Students will say that what I taught them really changed how they see the world or gave them skills they will use forever. That’s pretty cool. I also get a lot of cat drawings, which is also cool.

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I literally had so many to choose from, you have no idea.

I like the front side. But I would argue that the front side—the teaching part—is a corollary of my actual job. The main thing professors do is create knowledge. I do this two ways.

Way #1: hey, do you like seat belts? What about Google? Heard the term intersectionality used to describe social injustice? All that shit was invented by professors. To be specific, professors thought up that shit, and then figured out a way to actualize it through research and experiments, and then explained it by writing it out clearly and supporting it with persuasive evidence. Then they sent it into the world and now we know!
maxresdefault.jpgPeople that are not professors can invent things at places that are not universities. But universities are locations where professors are paid to invent technology and ideas that could fundamentally alter cultural knowledges, add to society, change the world. When I got hired as a professor, it was with the understanding that I would teach for the university and also that I would think deeply and complexly about the world and its problems, come up with original and novel ideas, and put them into the world. Lest this sound like an easy deal, my knowledge output is measured and evaluated. In other words, professors have to prove that our thinking has led to original ideas and that original ideas have worth. How is such a thing proven? Through articles published in blind, peer-reviewed academic journals, by writing and publishing peer-reviewed books, presenting conference papers at national and international forums, being awarded grant funding, being invited to speak in various prestigious public forums… We have a fancy nihilist term for all this: publish or perish. I keep my job from year to year (and professors get tenured) by showing the material output of my thinking and also proving that a large body of my peers has deemed this output valuable.

Way #2: ok, so professors have to think up, write up, and publish up original knowledge. But the other way I create knowledge is by developing university curriculum. I don’t just teach classes, I work with my peers to grow fields of knowledge and then design curriculum that imparts key elements of those fields to students. When you take a class from a professor, you see the professor teach the content. But before you even get to this part, the professor has decided on the best texts to convey the content, on the units that best demonstrate the content, on the examples and keywords essential to the content. And they have also chosen the content itself. There are thousands of important ideas that make up my own field of Women’s and Gender Studies. My job is to know as much of that knowledge as I possibly can and then decide what parts are most important for students to learn and when they should learn them. When I get all that figured out, I then find texts and examples, write lessons, and design exercises that best convey my decisions. I trained for eleven years, which is the amount of years I spent getting my higher education degrees, to be able to do this. So I have a good background and good skills, but I could also draw on some pre-made resources like text readers and syllabus examples and activity banks. You know who came up with those readers, syllabi, and activity resources? Professors. And you know how I know they’re accurate? Because of my background and skills. In effect, my job is always to know about and sort through all the knowledge of a given field and then use my training to build a new set or unit of knowledge—a knowledgelet if you will—for students learning this field. I create the knowledge that exists in my field, and I create the units of knowledge that teach this field to others. And I grade papers too.

Lemmee wrap up by running some numbers. If you think that the whole of my job is teaching classes (as some human dumpster fire politicians have argued), then you must think being a professor is pretty easy because I don’t teach eight hours a day, forty hours a week. Actually, I teach four classes, twice a week and, at seventy-five minutes per class, that’s ten hours a week. Cool. If you had a forty-hour/week salaried job and one of the requirements was that you lead a staff meeting eight times a week, would you only be working when you were running those meetings? Or would you also be working when you came up with the topic of the meeting, collected materials, organized and wrote out your talking points, made visuals and handouts, sent out email reminders and agendas, and followed up with coworkers? Unless you’re in a really exploitative job, you probably get to count all this as part of your workweek. In fact, all this prep and these presentations might actually be a corollary of your actual job. That is, you got hired to do something in addition to these presentations, and you’re still responsible for doing and completing that something. If yer lucky, maybe you get to make some of your presentations overlap with this other part of your job. But probably not all eight, and probably not every week.

I teach, therefore I profess! Teaching is part of my job and it’s a great part and it’s the most visible part. But I also profess when I create knowledge and launch it out to the world. I don’t have summers off because that creating knowledge part is not contingent on me being in a classroom. Publish or perish doesn’t stop just because I am teaching more students or less students. I can do it anytime, and I do it all the time. This is a really hard and a really time consuming and a really important and a really crucial part of my job. Luckily, I trained a long time to do this work and, super luckily, I get paid to do it. Not everyone that makes knowledge gets paid for their labor. But professors do. It’s what we do.

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Posted in academia, culture, politics, society

Why the fuck should I even care about benevolent sexism?

I was walking down the right side of a sidewalk (as literally every sidewalk etiquette article insists is correct). A man was walking toward me and, as our game of sidewalk chicken escalated, he frenetically gestured for me to move over to the left. Why? Because, he said, “ladies walk on the inside.” I told him (yelled after him after I sheepishly moved aside) that was incorrect and sexist. He told me (yelled behind him as he walked away) that was absolutely NOT sexist. Perhaps he fancied it was 1850 and he was  putting the lady he was escorting on the protected part of the sidewalk. That was a thing, I guess, because gentlemen needed to guard ladies from the ruffian side of the sidewalk where carriages and horses and puddles dared to exist. I think sidewalk guy  was attempting to be gentlemanly by enforcing this old-fashioned gesture of female protection. But he was actually telling a woman what to do with her body, making her move around him in spite of contemporary norms, and disrespecting her space and wishes. So it was sexist. But it was benevolent sexism.

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Thank god I’m on the inside of the curb or else satan would be able to grab me!

Slight topic detour: Peggy McIntosh describes how she was taught from a young age to only identify racism in conscious individual acts of meanness. Of course, this type of racism does happen. But McIntosh says this image prevented her—a White woman—from noticing how racist practices and policies were also institutionalized, and then how her own unthinking, non-malicious everyday actions reinforced these systems. Even if someone is not being consciously racist and even if the correlation between that person’s actions and the subjugation of people of Color isn’t super clear, they can still be perpetuating racism by participating in and benefiting from racist systems. You see, intent is not the same as effect.

Is your idea of sexism a manager saying he doesn’t promote women because they’re too volatile during their times of the month? Of course, this type of sexism does happen. But we also participate in sexism via subtle everyday practices that cast women as less qualified, less capable, less valuable, less able, less worthy, less whole, or more naturally inclined toward roles like being sex objects or doing unpaid domestic and menial labor. Sometimes gestures that are intended as genteel or flattering ultimately replicate notions that women are lesser and—here’s the kicker—that a woman’s expressed will is less significant than a man’s beliefs or intentions. Enter benevolent sexism.

Classic example: a man holds a door for a woman. Is this sexist? NOT NECESSARILY INTERNET TROLLS. Holding the door for all people, especially people that need aid, can be super nice! In this scenario, the woman says “that’s ok, I can get it” and the door holder insists because he’s a gentleman and he always holds doors for ladies. But why always and only ladies? And why does he insist? Is it because he’s trying to be polite? Yes. It is because he’s trying to treat women in a flattering way? Yes. Is it because he thinks women should be held to a different standard when it comes to labor, even when the labor isn’t really laborious? Yes. Is it because he thinks his idea of chivalry outweighs the woman’s expressed wants? Yes. Ah, now we’ve slipped into sexism. Door guy’s insistence is based on a sexist belief that women are generally less capable and also that what men think is correct for women is more important than what women think is correct for themselves. It wasn’t intended to be sexist, but the effect nevertheless was. Intent is not the same as effect.

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Let’s make an effort to read facial expressions here, shall we?

Lets do some more: once, a man on my bus detoured on his way off to tell me I was so pretty. A man in an airport gestured to me and said it was great to be next to one of the most beautiful women here. A man approached me at bar to say I had a “yoga” body. Another told me I was the perfect size but not to lose any more weight. So here’s the benevolent part: these interactions were clearly intended as complimentary and I strongly suspect that no comment would have been made if I did not pass the test. But I did and these men felt I should know. This knowledge was given, I believe, to make me feel good. But here’s the sexism part: the reason these men felt entitled and even obligated to tell me their personal judgments about my body is because our sexist institutions and our sexist media says that women’s value goes up when they are deemed desirable. Looking good—especially in ways that elicit men’s sexual desire—is an achievement and, for women, often a prerequisite to other forms of status and power. Chimamanda Adiche calls this bottom power. Rosalind Gill calls this a postfeminist sensibility. Whatever you name it, the sentiment is built on a foundation of sexism: women are of higher value when they are coveted objects of hetero-male desire.

Caveat: I like physical compliments from my partner and I liked them from people I went on dates with, provided the date was going ok. And of course some women do like physical compliments from strange men. What’s that you say, not all women are the same? Why, that’s true! But I—one woman speaking for herself—I don’t like them so I try not to respond at all, or say something neutral like “ok.” I don’t smile and I don’t say thank you because I’m not happy or thankful. This is generally met with confusion or indignation and sometimes anger. You see, it’s assumed that I will smile and say thank you because of the complimentary intent, even if the effect is that I am uncomfortable, and even if the effect is that I am being forced into a sexist interaction. Smiling and saying thank you is expected from me because I am woman, as is apologizing, acquiescing, not showing aggression, being ever so pleasing, and staying in my lane. Expecting and even requiring women to placate men above their own feelings, to accept the intent of a comment rather than its personal or social effects, well, that’s sexist.

Here’s where I answer my title: why the fuck should I even care about a man on a bus telling me I’m pretty when White male senators are making decisions about my reproductive heath care, when rape is handled egregiously in our law and order system, when transwomen of Color are murdered every fucking day? Make no mistake, we need to work on this shit. Badly. Loudly. All hands to battlestations! But there’s no limit on the sexist items we can work on. Some sexist shit is more urgent but all acts of sexism contribute to a sexist society. And Kristen Hubby argues that when we let benevolent sexism slide because we’re focused on hostile sexism, we allow a less visible but still very real form of sexism to harden into the framework of our society. Benevolent sexism is not necessarily hostile but it just as effectively forestalls social change. Schooling ourselves on benevolent sexism shouldn’t diminish the focus on hostile sexism. We can do both friends.

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DO NOT USE CATS TO HIGHLIGHT SEXIST SOCIAL TROPES HISTORICAL ADVERTISEMENT THAT’S MY DEAL

**Oh wait I have another caveat. Terms like men and women or male and female are just grossly inaccurate. Not all men do this, not all males do this, and sometimes people who are not men or males do this. It’s a bit more accurate to say these interactions are tied to categories of masculinity and femininity, but of course not all masculine people do this and not all feminine people do that. However, Kate Bornstein argues that if the binary categories of masculine and feminine and men and women and male and female didn’t carry such social weight, then sexism wouldn’t exist because sexism is a direct and intentional result of how our gender system is built. Ok I’m done now for reals.

Posted in culture, gender, sexism, society, Uncategorized